“The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963,” explained the Venerable monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his June 1, 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., “is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand.”
To King’s “Western Christian conscience,” the practice of self-immolation was indeed incomprehensible. Therefore, King “turned to” Thich Nhat Hanh (whom he considered a friend) for help in understanding this practice, which to King appeared to be suicide driven by despair about our nation’s war on Vietnam. “The Press spoke then of suicide,” Hanh continued in his letter, “but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” Steeped in their Buddhist practices, the nuns and monks who burned themselves thus performed an “act of construction” rather than “an act of destruction,” Hanh wrote, because to die in this way is “to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”
This letter came to my mind when I heard that David S. Buckel had doused himself in gasoline and then set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last Saturday. Like the Buddhist monks and nuns about whom Hanh wrote, Buckel, too, wrote letters in which he explained why he self-immolated, letters he sent to the press and to the police. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Though he fought so ardently in the courts for what seemed, just two decades ago, impossible to achieve–the right of LGBTQ people, like me, to marry–David Buckel looked upon our climate politics and determined that, unlike the case of LGBTQ rights, litigating climate change would not be enough. It would not be enough, that is, to save us from climate catastrophe. Given his choice of protest, Buckel clearly believed as well that nothing we are doing now will save us from catastrophe.
So like the Buddhist nuns and monks of the Vietnam War era (Buckel actually likened his protest to that of Tibetans who self-immolated to protest the Chinese occupation of their country), Buckel set himself on fire. He set himself on fire to alarm us, to awaken us, to move our hearts, and to call our attention to the suffering we are causing because we continue to burn fossil fuels. He set himself on fire so that we would see ourselves, and our planet, on fire.
Yet, Buckel also set himself on fire because he held us in hope–hope that, as witnesses to his death, we would take action that actually reflects the scale of the environmental crisis we are facing. “This is not new,” Buckel said of his protest, “as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see. Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
After he explained to King the meaning of the nuns and monks’ self-immolation, Thich Nhat Hanh turned his full attention on King himself. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent…You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action.”
Speaking to his friend, Hanh made clear to King that ultimately what he needed to grapple with was not the fact that the monks and nuns burned themselves. Instead, King needed to come to terms with the fact that he and other well-meaning people looked upon the suffering our government inflicted upon the Vietnamese people and nevertheless remained silent. Though King had been “engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” he was relatively quiet concerning the war on Vietnam, and so Hanh’s words were a gentle rebuke. Two years would pass before King would finally stand up and, in his own words, “break the betrayal” of his “own silences and…speak from the burnings” of his “own heart” regarding our nation’s war on Vietnam.
And speak he did.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones,” King declared in his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
David Buckel decided on the protest that best suited his convictions. While we might declare, in spite of Buckel’s explanation, that his act is incomprehensible; and while we might get caught up in debates about whether or not his self-immolation was wrong-headed or dangerous or crazy or ineffective or brilliant, all of that is of no matter. In the end, we have to look at ourselves. We have to attend to our own silences or, rather, our relative quiescence in the face of what we are doing to one another, to other beings, and to our planet–silences that equal death, as Buckel’s burning body proclaimed. Moreover, if we are to survive our own folly–if we are to avoid setting ourselves on fire–then we will need to break, finally and decisively, the betrayal of our own silences. We will need to protest with as much conviction as our climate crisis demands.
This post originally appeared in Counterpunch.
The Wretched of Mother Earth: The Handbook for Living, Dying, and Nonviolent Revolution in the Midst of Climate Change Catastrophe
“Let’s just assume our grandchildren are fucked.”
My new book is out.
Inspired by Sogyal Rinchope’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Leela Fernandes’ Transforming Feminist Practice, The Wretched of Mother Earth is a mixed-genre Buddhist, feminist, post-colonial, anarchist manifesto about climate change that is also a meditation on dying and death. It is a work in which I argue that if we hope to save ourselves from climate change catastrophe, we must face not only the prospect of human extinction; but also we must radically confront what produced the climate crisis in the first place: the “colonial power matrix” and our deadly attachments to it.
“This [book] is an invitation to experience the transformative power of heartbreak that weaves a healed earth community out of the raw material of grief and fear.” ~Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center for Nonviolence
Good, bad, or ugly: I invite your reviews of my recent work.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. presented this choice to the nation in his powerful speech “Beyond Vietnam” — a speech he delivered exactly a year before he was assassinated — he was referring to the Cold War arms race and the possibility that the United States and the Soviet Union would kill us all in a nuclear holocaust. He implored us to choose peace, which for King meant that we needed to address the deep “malady within the American spirit” — namely, our commitment to the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” This commitment — this sickness — not only drove our arms race and the Vietnam War, King contended, but it also made us a nation of people willing to risk annihilation in order to preserve what was fundamentally an unjust way of life. For King, the escalating war in Vietnam, which he believed brought us closer to nuclear war, compelled us to choose — if we wanted to survive — a “person-oriented” nonviolent world marked by racial and economic justice over a “thing-oriented” world marked by war, racism and economic inequality.
[You can read the rest of this article in Buzzflash].
“This is the price of freedom,” said former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in reference to Stephen Craig Paddock’s mass shooting in Las Vegas last month. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are. The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”
Every time a gun massacre occurs in this country, opponents of gun control (like Bill O’Reilly) ask us to look beyond the carnage and see instead the very meaning and measure of American freedom. In particular, they insist that we decipher from the bodies not our failure to secure – for all of us – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; but instead our triumph over the tyranny of government and despots, as well as security from the threats we face from one another (or, more precisely, threats from the “Other,” usually coded as black and brown).
Thus, after the recent mass shooting by Devin Patrick Kelley in Sutherland, Texas, we were asked again to look beyond the dead and see our liberty. “Lawmakers and pundits on the left,” wrote Justin Haskins of the conservative Heartland Institute, for instance, “have already started to call for increased gun control laws that would strip law-abiding citizens of their Second Amendment rights in the name of protecting innocent Americans. But, as Benjamin Franklin once rightfully observed, ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’”
If the carnage of “innocent Americans” signifies freedom and the “price” we pay for it – or, to put this differently, if we’re supposed to understand Devin Patrick Kelley’s and Stephen Craig Paddock’s purchase, control, and use of firearms as epitomizing American freedom, then it is abundantly clear that what some opponents of gun control want to secure – even at the expense of elementary school children and babies attending church – is neither freedom from tyranny nor protection from others. No, what they want to safeguard, more than anything else, is the freedom to tyrannize or exercise power over, the freedom to be the threat and terror, rather than the ones threatened and terrorized. For what Kelley and Paddock did, after all, was the essence of tyranny.
Perched high above his victims and armed with over forty weapons, Paddock shot at and terrorized vulnerable and defenseless children, women and men who were, of all things, enjoying a country music concert. Paddock killed fifty-eight people and injured hundreds more.
Armed with two handguns and an AR-15 (an assault-style rifle) – as well as outfitted in tactical gear and a ballistic vest – Kelley first shot into Sutherland’s First Baptist Church, where his victims were perhaps singing hymns or praying or reciting Bible verses. And then he went inside the church to continue his assault, killing twenty-six people and injuring twenty.
I think it is safe to say that none of the victims posed a threat to Paddock or Kelley.
All of them, in fact, were defenseless, sitting ducks. To the victims, it must have seemed that Paddock and Kelley were damn near invincible. And by taking their own lives (though the jury is still out about whether Kelley killed himself), both gunmen guaranteed – as tyrants often do – that none of the victims and victims’ families would ever be able to hold them accountable for their crimes.
So when we hear some opponents of gun control condemn gun massacres, ask us to pray, and then talk about freedom, we should be clear that their sentiments are, in reality, celebrations of tyranny and terror, couched in terms of our “essential Liberty.” We should understand that the Paddocks and Kelleys are necessarily, in these gun control opponents’ world view, freedom fighters because they own and use (no matter how horrifically) firearms; and that the dead, maimed and traumatized children, women and men are, for all intents and purposes, fallen soldiers for a just cause (rather than the victims of gun-toting despots) because the person who shot them was exercising his Second Amendment rights. Opponents of gun control would have us believe, in fact, that the dead and injured took a bullet so that we might enjoy living as a free people.
This is all bullshit, of course. And it should come as no surprise that, for gun control opponents like O’Reilly, tyranny is freedom because, for them, tyranny is policy, both foreign and domestic. Tyranny over women, over LGBT communities, over the poor, over black and brown people, over other nations, over the environment, over other species, over people of other faiths – such tyranny constitutes the substance of their health care proposals, tax plans, trade regimes, local bathroom ordinances, court nominations, budget priorities. Tyranny is the point of their greater America.
Consequently, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is “not [a] spontaneous” outburst “of raw brutal energy that breaks the chains of civilized customs,” as Slajob Žižek observed (Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors) with regard to the “brutal reaction in males” that “social dislocation” often “provokes.” It is instead “something learned, externally imposed, ritualized: part of the collective symbolic substance of a community.”
Indeed, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is precisely what celebrations of freedom as tyranny inevitably produce.
Originally published in Counterpunch.
We should dispense once and for all with the term “climate-change deniers.”
Because “climate-change deniers” keeps us from calling out these women and men – and most especially those who occupy the White House, Congress, and state houses – for performing disbelief about something that, more likely than not, many of them actually accept as true: our climate is changing radically due to human activities.
Most of them, I would wager, believe the science and need us to believe that they don’t. And they need us to believe them, or at least to take seriously the possibility that they honestly disbelieve, not only because they derive benefits from pretending and sowing doubt; but also because the last thing they want is for us to fashion a politics that contends with the frightening truth that even though they know, They Don’t Care.
They don’t care that our glaciers are melting.
They don’t care that sea levels are rising.
They don’t care that the permafrost is thawing and will likely release unsustainable amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.
They don’t care that our oceans are acidifying.
They don’t care that our water tables are decreasing.
They don’t care that “extreme weather” is becoming the new normal, that resource conflicts due to climate change are turning children, women and men into climate refugees, that species are dying off at an alarming rate.
They don’t care.
And they don’t care that we can actually save ourselves, as well as other beings with whom our lives are inescapably intertwined, from the catastrophes climate change will produce.
This includes the unthinkable catastrophe of human extinction.
They don’t care because caring does not serve their interests.
H.R.673 – To prohibit United States contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund.
115th Congress (2017-2018)
On January 24, 2017, Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer [R-MO-3] – who has argued that “for far too long, American tax dollars have been sent to the United Nations to produce controversial science and feel-good conferences” – introduced H.R. 673 to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill expressly forbids “any Federal department or agency” from making contributions to, or for, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Green Climate Fund.”
Not only would this legislation undercut both international efforts to assess “the science related to climate change” (IPCC) and the legal framework within which the international community is addressing the climate crisis (UNFCCC); the bill would also significantly weaken efforts both “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries” and “to help adapt vulnerable societies to the unavoidable impacts of climate change” (GCF).
To introduce such a bill goes beyond disbelief in climate science, for its purpose is to make impossible our capacity both to reach a level of certainty about climate change and its impacts, and to act upon what we discover. It is to silence.
But even more to the point: to introduce such a bill – and to then sign on and make it the law of the land (which this Congress will probably do) – is exactly what you do when you believe in the science and you don’t want the people to know the truth.
Representative Luetkemeyer is a true believer who simply does not care.
Neither do the co-sponsors of his bill. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, for example, is himself the sponsor of the Stop the EPA Act. Both Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona have regularly questioned the science of climate change. The other co-sponsors – representatives Louis Gohmert (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Ann Wagner (R-MO), Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and Robert Latta (R-OH) – are equally as problematic. None of them score more than 7% on the League of Conservations Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard.
And all of them are recipients of energy sector dollars, the very fact of which should cause us to question their doubts and disbelief – especially since these can be so easily purchased by petro and other energy interests.
If these “climate-change deniers” who populate the halls of government are actually true believers of climate-change science, then we should be clear that the policies they produce and enact in such areas as, for example, health care, civil rights, immigration, labor, international relations, education, and taxes necessarily bear (and will bear) the weight of their nihilistic disregard. After all, men and women who do not care about the looming catastrophes of climate change knowing full well that they are looming, are by and large unlikely to propose health care legislation that is good for us or craft fair labor policies or offer legislation that recognizes the humanity of immigrants. And certainly they will fall short in proposing anything that protects our rights as a free people.
In other words, these faux climate-change deniers can be counted on to pass legislation that expresses their disregard for the vast majority of us.
And even if we take them at their word and suppose that they are true nonbelievers, their inaction concerning (if not indifference to) such phenomenon as sea level rise and melting permafrost suggests a profound lack of concern on their part for what is happening now, before their very eyes. It’s not as if these self-identified nonbelievers are championing mitigation plans or are trying to figure out how to support people increasingly displaced by drought and floods and extreme weather events. If anything, they’re trying to clear the way for more fossil fuel extraction and dependence. This is how nonbelievers operate.
Whether they are believers or nonbelievers is thus really of no matter. In either case, they do not care.
So let’s dispense with the “climate-change deniers” nomenclature. We are up against men and women in power – from corporate board rooms to the White House – who are willing, and happily so, to drive us over the cliff of climate catastrophe. They know that that is where they are driving us while believing, all along the way, in the science that is warning us that we are steadily and dangerously approaching that cliff.
They could really care less.
Climate activism, then – hell, all of our activism – must change accordingly.
UPDATE: Representatives Glen Grothman (R-WI), David Rouzer (R-NC), and Brian Babin (R-TX) have added their names to the list of co-sponsors.
These are photos from the 2003 world-wide marches and protests that occurred as the Bush Administration –operating on the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – moved inexorably towards its war on Iraq:
On March 20, 2003, the United States started bombing Baghdad.
We marched a little more.
But our government did not stop and has not stopped bombing Iraq (which we do now for different reasons that trace back to the original lie). We will probably continue to bomb Iraq over the next four years.
Like those anti-war marches, our marches yesterday were powerful. We pledged our resistance to Donald Trump, the GOP, the administration that is shaping up, and the policies that they hope to inflict upon us.
Trump and the GOP, however, don’t give a damn about our marches. Like Bush, they intend to bomb anyway – bomb health care, bomb social security, bomb civil liberties, bomb the Treasury, bomb reproductive rights, bomb the poor, bomb immigrants….
In addition to Iraq, they intend to bomb some other country, most likely Middle Eastern.
The only question, then, is what resistance will we offer that will not prove as impotent as our resistance during the Bush years? Will we walk away from these marches, giddy with the delusion that they are the only work that we need to do?
Or have we learned the lesson of Iraq (I have great hopes that we have), which is that the world pays a huge price for – that children, women and men suffer and die because of – our political quietism and submission to those in power, of which our anti-whatever marches have too often been the first phase?
Sogyal Rinpoche argues that in the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, “we find the whole of life and death presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos.” The word “bardo,” Sogyal explains, is “commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously, throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.” Bardos are thus moments “charged with potential, when whatever you do has a far-reaching effect.”
This juncture between the end of the Obama years and the beginning of the Trump years is more powerful than we might realize. Though it is certainly a time to organize resistance to what are shaping up to be (as Trump’s cabinet picks indicate) reactionary and repressive policies, it is also a moment of liberation, or at least the possibility of it – and not just from the failed politics and strategies of the Democratic Party.
This bardo, for example, is a moment in which we should unhesitatingly meet the challenge of many of our neighbors’ declared commitment to an alt-democracy, authoritarianism, and white nationalism, by not only abandoning altogether any investments we have in the narrow politics of nationalism and national identity (which are bound up anyway with xenophobia, racism, violent masculinity, greed, and war without end); but also by freeing ourselves into a more expansive and radical sense of identity and kinship.
In this regard, the convergence at Standing Rock is instructive: women and men from around the globe and from all walks of life traversed the boundaries of nation, state and city to stand nonviolently with the Sioux against state and corporate repression and to protect our natural resources. In the process, they prefigured an alternative identity and community, defined in terms of Earth, water, and the fundamental connection we have with one another.
That kind of kinship the violent politics of our nationalism (embraced by both Democrats and Republicans alike) not only deny outright but actively seek to repress. And yet such kinship is what we should pledge allegiance to, now, as the basis from which we battle and create meaningful alternatives to the dystopia offered by Trump and his supporters.
This moment is also the time to accept that other challenge posed by our neighbors: to “make America great again.”
While the slogan is, as many have argued, a promise to secure forever an America frozen within an oppressive past and unsullied by the passage of time (in this regard, “make America great again” is not unlike the slogan on which Alabama Governor George Wallace ran in 1963 – “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), it is also, to a great extent, a call for an American imperial order that will exist in perpetuity.
In other words, “make American great again” is the expressed hope of a people who cannot imagine change, who cannot imagine a post-American imperial future and the necessity of just such a future for global peace. Consequently, many of them are willing to embark upon a repressive and antidemocratic project through the leadership of man who is decidedly authoritarian.
This bardo, then, is the time to free ourselves from any subtle, unspoken attachment we have to a timeless United States, knowing that it keeps us in a permanent posture of war and makes it impossible for us to imagine a just and peaceful alternative global order. Our attachment, in fact, is antithetical to peace since peace demands that we change.
Which brings me to a final point, one inspired by Neal Garber’s argument that “America died on Nov. 8, 2016” and that “whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7.”
America did not die, of course. And it is, absolutely, the same place.
Would it not be wise, then, to sit in this bardo and ask whether the democracy we practice is ultimately an inadequate answer to the question of what it means to be liberated? Might November 8 signify that our democracy is forever scarred by, or designed specifically to produce, the injuries inflicted by colonialism, capitalism, slavery, the repression of women, and the prerogatives of wealthy, propertied white men?
We should not ask these questions lightly, especially since so many of us and our ancestors have warred and died and amended and litigated to make this nation live up to its promise that it is the champion of “liberty, justice, and equality” – that its people are “free.”
But maybe this democracy is, in ways we perhaps cannot see, inherently exclusive, an idea that actually structures injustice and inequality as freedom. Maybe the democracy we have can only be reinvented as an alt-democracy because it is alt, because our constitution was, for most of its existence, a doctrine made intentionally silent about the travesties and injustices upon which it was grounded.
So maybe now is the time for us to ask an entirely different set of questions that not only take us to the heart of what we mean when we talk about being a free people; but that also open us up to grander, more liberating alternatives that our democracy might very well suppress.